COMFORT, W.Va. -- Time stopped five days ago for the families of 29 coal miners killed in the devastating explosion at Upper Big Branch mine.
As thousands waited, hoping for any word someone might have survived Monday's blast, life in coal country chugged on, men trudging underground day and night to fill the trucks and trains that haul away coal around the clock.
Mining is a way of life here. So is death.
Just miles from where families gathered to wait for news, a peddler of mining gear did brisk business and tired miners covered in coal dust picked up pizzas at the end of their shifts. In the quiet, humble neighborhoods that hug the Big Coal River, the work never stopped.
"When the World Trade Center was bombed, the world didn't shut down," said James Lipford, 38, a miner from Seth who was driving to the V-Mart convenience store early Saturday when he heard the last four bodies had been found deep inside Massey Energy Co.'s mine in Montcoal.
He knew three of those killed and worried all week, but never thought about quitting. After all, he says, coal company shareholders still expect profits. Homeowners expect to be able to turn on their lights with electricity generated by coal. His family expects him to bring home a paycheck so they can buy groceries.
"We go with a heavy heart," he said, "but you have to go."
It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.
Seven bodies were pulled from Upper Big Branch immediately after Monday's blast, but dangerous gases forced rescue crews out and it took days for them to get back in. They hoped four miners they had not accounted for might somehow have made it to a refuge chamber stocked with food, water and oxygen, but word came early Saturday that all had been found dead.
Crews realized late Friday they had walked past the four bodies that first day, but could not see them because the air was so smoky and dusty. The massive blast left the inside of the mine a mess of twisted tracks, boulders and debris. Two other miners were injured and one remains hospitalized.
Twenty-eight of those killed worked for Virginia-based Massey and one was a contract worker for the company, which has been under scrutiny since the explosion for a string of safety violations at the mine. CEO Don Blankenship, who was with the families when they learned the miners were dead, has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Officials have not said what caused the blast, though they believe high levels of methane gas may have played a role. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.
President Barack Obama said Saturday that steps must be taken to make sure such an explosion does not happen again.
"We cannot bring back the men we lost," he said in a statement. "What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability."
A team of federal investigators will arrive Monday, but for now the focus is on burying the dead and removing the remaining bodies, a grim process that started Saturday.
A complete list of victims has not been released, but most of the names are public knowledge. In the hollows studded with blooming redbuds, everybody knows everybody, and word spreads fast.
Four funerals were held Friday, with more scheduled for the weekend. Nearly two dozen will follow in the weeks ahead.
At Jarrell's General Merchandise in Dry Creek, clerk Lavon Collins thought about her friends and neighbors and the three dead men she knew, all from the small communities along Clear Fork Road.
"You'll never, ever forget, but you have to go on," Collins said.
Rock Creek barber Mark Aliff came into Jarrell's to buy spray paint and nails so he could add to the hundreds of handmade signs supporting the miners that dot yards, porches and fences across the valley. He knew some of the victims, too, young men whose hair he has cut for nearly 25 years.
"I watched them grow into the coal miners they were today," said Aliff, who woke to blaring ambulance sirens around midnight Friday and nudged his wife awake.
"They got somebody out alive and they were getting him an ambulance is what I was hoping," he said, his voice trailing off.
Aliff hauled the red paint to his shop to write a message aimed at not just the miners' families, but the larger family of the coalfields.
"It's going to say 'God Bless Our Coal Miners and Families' to include everybody else that's not a coal miner but has a friend or somebody that's in the mines," he said. "I want to include everyone."
Here, mining and logging are the most reliable and lucrative ways to earn a living. Coal mining pays well and the work is relatively stable, an attractive option for young men not interested in college.
"A lot of people look at mining as a job for the uneducated, for the impoverished," said Jonathan Word, 21, whose great-grandfather died in a mining explosion decades ago. "But it's just a job, and they've got to support themselves."
Rob Lemon, who works at a mine up the road from Upper Big Branch, thinks about the risks every day. This week has made him think about his wife and daughters, and how it would be for them to live through a disaster like this, waiting a week to learn whether he had lived or died.
"It reminds you of how dangerous it is and it can be," Lemon said. "But we still all have a job to do."
In Whitesville, there is only one restaurant amid the boarded-up stores. And two funeral homes.
Just about everyone in town has a story about a miner who narrowly escaped death underground.
Sticking to the semblance of a routine helps them cope with the latest tragedy.
"If you don't have tunnel vision, if you don't have the day-to-day, you will totally lose it," said Patty Ann Manios, a Whitesville councilwoman who lost her grandfather in a mining explosion decades ago. She wept early Saturday as she watched Gov. Joe Manchin announce that no one had been found alive in the mine. "This whole river is a community and the only way to get through it is to work. Because if you sit home, you'll lose your mind."
Tammy Powers is trying to shatter a worrying pattern, too: Her 54-year-old husband Fred died of a heart attack five years ago while on the job as a crane operator at a nearby mine. Now she is begging her 21-year-old coal miner son to quit.
She knows he won't.
"We have no choice but to accept death," she said. "And when it happens to other families, my heart just drops."
So the work goes on.
Sarah James' husband, a surface miner, went back to his job the day after the deadly explosion.
"At first, I thought this town would never be the same," the 23-year-old mother said. "But in a year's time it might be back to normal. Everyone will be back to work. We'll do what we do best."
Funerals begin for victims of W.Va. mine blast
MULLENS, W.Va. -- As grieving relatives began burying some of the 25 coal miners killed in a massive underground explosion, crews prepared to go back into the mine Friday despite increasingly slim odds of finding survivors.
Rescuers pulled seven bodies from the mine just after Monday's blast, the worst U.S. mining disaster in two decades, but were forced out by poisonous gas before they could remove the rest or check for four missing miners who might have been able to hole up in refuge chambers.
Rescue teams have been trying ever since to get back inside Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, but had to turn back for a third time Friday when they encountered smoke about 1,000 feet below the surface and five miles in.
"We are praying for a miracle," President Barack Obama said as he offered his condolences to the victims' families in Washington on Friday.
Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said that 16 rescuers would go back in Friday afternoon for a fourth try and hoped to get near the refuge chamber within three or four hours. Crews drilled a hole and had hoped to drop a camera in to check if the refuge chamber had been used, but they later determined that would not work.
Officials have not said what caused the blast, but they believe high levels of methane gas may have played a role. They also were not sure what was causing the smoke but said they pumped enough nitrogen into the mine to make it safe for crews to try again in the afternoon.
As crews prepared to go back in, more than 300 people packed the Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who was five weeks from retiring when he died.
He was remembered as a devout and generous man who recently gave a used car to a stranger. He had been a miner for more than 30 years and became a born again Christian 19 years ago this week.
"He wasn't just a weekend warrior," said the Rev. Gary Pollard of the Mullens Family Worship Center.
In the days since the explosion, details have emerged about an extensive list of safety violations at the mine. Massey Energy has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up. CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Federal regulators issued evacuation orders for all or parts of the mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, according to a report prepared for Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
In 2007, the mine met criteria to be declared by the Mine Safety and Health Administration as having a pattern of violations. That declaration would have allowed for stricter oversight by the federal agency, including the potential shutdown of the mine, but Massey was able to reduce the number of the most serious violations and avoid it.
Pam Napper, whose 25-year-old son Josh died, said he had been sent home early the Friday before the explosion because of concerns about ventilation in the mine. He called her at 3:30 p.m. and she asked why he wasn't at work, where he usually stayed until at least 5:30.
"He said, 'Mom, the ventilation's bad,"' Pam Napper recalled. "And they sent him out of the mines. Everybody. He went back to work Monday."
Before that, apparently over Easter weekend, he wrote a letter to his mother, his fiancee and his 19-month-old daughter, telling them that he would be looking down from heaven if anything happened to him.
"I just knew that Josh in his heart knew that something was going to happen," Pam Napper said.
MSHA has appointed a team of investigators to look into the explosion, and Obama said he has asked federal mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused the blast.
"It's clear that more needs to be done," Obama said of mine safety.
The U.S. House and Senate plan to hold hearings, though they won't set a date until rescue efforts are over. Byrd said lawmakers will scrutinize Massey's practices.
There have been no signs of life inside the mine since the day of the explosion, but officials and miners' families prayed the four miners somehow made it to a refuge chamber that has enough room for more than a dozen miners and is stocked with four days' worth of oxygen, food and water. It's possible that with fewer miners inside, they could survive for longer than four days.
Rescuers got far enough Friday to see that no one was in one of two chambers that had not been checked. But as they tried to get to the last chamber in the morning, they found signs of fire and smoke and had to retreat before they could determine if anyone had made it inside.
The refuge chamber is an expandable box activated by opening a door and pulling a lever. It takes about five minutes for the chamber to deploy, and "you would know very, very clearly if it had been deployed," said Rory Paton-Ash, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Strata Safety.
Search teams had gotten frustratingly close a day earlier to answers for the families of the missing miners -- just 500 feet from the emergency chambers where any survivors would be -- then were ordered to retreat because of volatile gas.
Of the 25 confirmed dead, 18 bodies remain inside. Seven bodies were removed earlier in the week. Two other miners survived, and one of them remains hospitalized.
Jennifer Renner, 22, of Charleston knew Cory Davis, who was among those killed in the blast. She said she understands the need to protect rescuers but also believes the miners still inside Upper Big Branch deserve to be brought out as quickly as possible.
"They're in pretty much a mountain tomb right now," said Renner, the daughter of a longtime coal miner who has a tattoo on her calf with a mining helmet, pick and shovel with "Daddy" streamed across it. "I think they've done their shift there and I think it's time to get them out."
Associated Press Writers Allen G. Breed, Greg Bluestein, Tim Huber, Tom Breen, Dena Potter and John Raby and videojournalist Mark Carlson in West Virginia; Mitch Weiss and Mike Baker in North Carolina; Ray Henry in Atlanta; and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.